It’s mid-June, and that means the Electronic Entertainment Expo (more popularly known as E3) has come and gone, and left behind an embarrassment of riches in the form of game trailers and other videos featuring the gameplay Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and their ilk promise to deliver into the hands of gamers over the next year and beyond.
From the perspective of a musicologist, perhaps no trailer at E3 this year has been as interesting as the release trailer for the upcoming cartoon shooter Cuphead. First introduced at E4 2014, the game aggressively asserts a quasi-nostalgic, 1930s Americana style (quasi, as most players will not have experienced this style in its heyday). Each of the trailers features original music in the style of 1920s and 30s American jazz recorded live and composed by Kristofer Maddigan, a percussionist and composer based in Toronto.
In the first trailer, from E3 2014, the audioviewer is initially introduced to an animated trailer format from the 1920s, before the widespread adoption of recorded sound, instead using title cards to convey speech and what sounds like live music. The first reads, “By golly! Cuphead and Mugman are in trouble!” amidst the pounding, Krupa-style drums of hot American jazz and rapid keyboard flourishes. While short, at a scant thirty-five seconds, the trailer nonetheless manages to capture all of the essential tropes of silent film era cinematic animated trailers.
The trailer featured at E3 2015 ups the ante, more than doubling the trailer’s length, increasing the tempo of the frenetic percussion, and offering a touch more by the way of plot, stating that “Cuphead and Mugman gambled with the Devil…. and lost!!!” A subtle bit of sync between the sound image occurs at 0:15 as a solitary, high piano chord hits at the same time we see the protagonists in shock over losing to the devil in a game of dice. A grooving ostinato in the double bass (plucked, of course) and trumpets with snarling mutes underscore the plot as Cuphead and Mugman are made to serve the devil to pay off their lost bets. Throughout, animations that strongly evoke the days of late 1920s Disney (think Steamboat Willie) match perfectly with the visceral jazz music. At 0:53 we are treated to a somewhat unexpected sync point, with the wail of the brass matching the mermaid’s attempt to blow Cuphead away. The title cards and final titles at 0:57 onward further hammer home the nostalgia act, stating “Coming 1936. (Plus eighty years)”; however, that number would eventually end up being eighty one. Ragtime piano plays it out.
Fast forward to this year, and the game is finally nearly ready for release. Animated typography in the style of old movie trailers promises a “thrilling game” as brass and woodwinds gradually ascend a diminished chord by tritones and minor thirds, eventually resolving to a glorious major chord and alternating tom-toms that heavily emulate the sound of timpani, showing off the main title card. It gives way to a parallel minor chord at 0:26 and woodwinds change hands as they steady escalate a series of alternating half steps down and minor thirds up, with some deviances in the pattern for good measure, with no particular reference to a steady rhythmic measure. Despite the series of heavy action sequences showcasing gameplay, we only hear this musical arrangement. At 0:38 we get the final release date – September 29th – as the brass and winds coalesce on a triumphant cadential 6/4 with a Picardy third, ending with a faint bit of the static one would hear at the end of a film reel.
The whole musical arrangement for Cuphead’s E3 2017 release trailer appears to be, to some extent, a riff on Also sprach Zarathrustra, Op. 30, the Richard Strauss tone poem made famous by Kubrick’s selection for it to represent the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, one might say this piece is a 19th century work popularized to represent the (since-surpassed) near future of 2001, and since rearranged in the style of the early 20th century to appeal to the ears of 2017. Whatever the case, the Cuphead trailers make for a joyful celebration and reminder of the most charismatic qualities of early American cartoons and cinema, replete with the musical stylings of the era – something in part afforded by the novelty of revisiting such media in the form of a video game.
In an era of gaming where the number of polygons a console can push doesn’t appear to be so impressive anymore, the most eye-catching and immersive games are arguably the ones that turn back to the art of cinema and lean heavily on artistry to engross the gamer-as-audioviewer. In this respect, it’s no surprise that Cuphead’s heavy aesthetic borrowings from the 1930s would resonate with such fresh appeal.
– Curtis Perry